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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: The nuthatch displays appealing attributes

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

The white-breasted has several appealing attributes—to people, at least, and presumably also to other nuthatches. For starters, the nuthatch can hang upside down. For another, it is a resident bird, which means it is around all year. This combination provides good winter entertainment for bird watchers.

Beyond attendance and athleticism, the nuthatch offers aesthetic appeal, as well. It is not a flamboyant bird, but a natty one, neatly marked with black and white on a blue-gray background, and with a breast that is usually brilliant white in color.

Sometimes, the breast gets soiled, and this can lead to confusion with another species, the red-breasted nuthatch, which is also pale blue-gray marked with black. The markings are different enough to distinguish the species from one another. Both have black on the top of the head and the nape of the neck. The white-breasted nuthatch is whiter in the face; the red-breasted has a dark line through its eye that the white-breasted completely lacks. Plus, its breast is red, overall, usually quit vividly so.

The red-breasted nuthatch is less common; although there are nesting records, it is ordinarily a transient here, wandering into our area from the north. The two species have different habitat preferences. Red-breasted nuthatches prefer evergreens, while white-breasted nuthatches take to deciduous trees, such as cottonwoods and elms — the kind of trees that line our streets and shade our parks.

The nuthatches are not conspicuous birds, and they can be overlooked. They generally keep to themselves, though sometimes they occur in small groups that might include chickadees and other winter species.

Another nuthatch attribute makes them noticeable, however, and that is their voice. White-breasted nuthatches have an alarm call, used when they sense danger, which can include the approach of a human observer. This is a nasal wanking kind of noise that can seem quite loud, especially on windless winter mornings. Bird guides describe this sound as "yenk" or "yank" or sometimes "quank."

White-breasted nuthatches have a variety of other calls, 13 altogether, according to the monograph on the species in the American Ornithologists' Union "Birds of North America" series. Most of these are given by nesting birds and wouldn't be heard on a winter birding excursion.

The red-breasted nuthatch is a more social bird than the white-breasted, often calling within flocks. Their usual noise is a series of notes, rendered "Neep! Neep! Neep!" more nasal and lower pitched than the white-breasted nuthatch's calls.

The bill is another distinctive attribute of the nuthatches. In the white-breasted nuthatch, it is a long, pointed tool, ideal for grasping insects and drawing them out from under the bark of a tree or, more rarely, dragging them out of the litter of leaves on the ground. In winter, their diet turns toward seeds, and nuthatches are frequent feeder visitors. Nuthatches are known to store seeds, though they aren't as ambitious about it as blue jays, which assiduously carry off the peanuts (unsalted, of course) that I offer them. Nor are the nuthatches anywhere nearly as bold as the blue jays. Instead, the nuthatches are shier; they don't come as close to my window as other species, and they rarely show up on the deck, which is often crowded with feeding redpolls. The nuthatches also come to suet, though it seems to me that they yield their place at the suet cake to any woodpecker that wants it.

The nuthatches have another attribute, forcing a seed into a crevice and then pounding at it to get to the meal inside. This gives them their common name, derived from an Old English word that evolved into the modern word "hack."

Our local nuthatches are among two dozen species worldwide. Two others occur in North America, the brown-headed nuthatch and the pygmy nuthatch.

The nuthatch population isn't as large as that of other winter birds. I'd say the ratio of nuthatches to redpolls is somewhere near 10-to-1 in favor of the redpolls. These are by far the most abundant birds at my feeder this year. Next in order of abundance come the blue jays, of which about a dozen are regulars. I also have two woodpecker species, downy and hairy, and a northern shrike has been hanging around. The pine siskins that were daily diners earlier in the season have entirely disappeared.